Most cities, states, and nations are measured by the size of their economy and how much it grows from year to year. But those kinds of figures tell you little about how average residents are faring. Just ask anyone who can no longer afford life in the economically booming San Francisco Bay Area.
The Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington, DC, has a new ranking of the nation’s largest 100 metro areas that stacks them up along three different criteria: economic growth, yes, but also prosperity—meaning changes in the economic well-being of average workers—and inclusion—or changes in the well-being of all residents.
Between 2009 and 2014, during the recovery from the Great Recession, most cities experienced economic growth, as measured by jobs, gross metropolitan product, and aggregate wages. Yet only nine metro areas did better than average in all criteria: growth, prosperity, and inclusion (both overall inclusion and racial inclusion). In other words, in most cities, economic growth didn’t lead to a better life for many. In 80 metro areas, median wages declined.
Of the nine metro areas that outperformed the average in all categories, four were in Texas and Oklahoma: Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, and Oklahoma City. Three were in the Midwest: Grand Rapids, Michigan; Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota; and Louisville, Kentucky. On the West Coast, San Jose, California and Seattle, Washington made the cut. And even out of these cities, only two—Houston and San Jose—have performed better than average consistently over the last decade.
Why so few? Some cities, like Bakersfield, California, have had job growth, but stagnant wages and productivity. Others, like Pittsburgh saw an increase in average wages, even though it was stuck near the bottom in terms of job growth. In most of the 81 cities that saw an increase in average wages, it was higher-earners who tended to benefit. In other words, the rich get richer. Only 20 of these cities saw the increasing wages for the typical worker and the poverty rate fell in fewer than half of these cities. What’s more, only 21 cities saw the gap between whites and people of color shrink on all three measures.
The report concludes that some cities can serve as models for creating a better economy for all. "Economic growth alone, even growth that produces rising living standards, does not reliably assure better outcomes for all groups in a metropolitan area," it says. "Some metropolitan areas have managed progress on prosperity and inclusion outcomes in the absence of robust growth, a path that merits deeper scrutiny, especially for slower-growing areas of the country."
You can dig into an interactive graphic that breaks down the large trove of data here.